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7 ways to reduce cortisol in your body.

Why losing weight doesn't work when you're stressed. And why home isolation makes this worse.

The stress hormone cortisol, is the 'enemy number one' for public health. Scientists have known for years that elevated cortisol levels: Affects memory, causes lower immune function and bone density, weight gain, high blood pressure, cholesterol, heart disease, etc. The list goes on and on.

Our body produces the hormone cortisol during prolonged stress. Cortisol, alongside adrenaline, is an important stress hormone that performs several functions. Cortisol even helps keep us alive by maintaining our body's homeostasis (balance). It helps regulate blood pressure, immune system responses, acts as an anti-inflammatory, affects heart functions, blood vessel functions and central nervous system activity. Quite a lot when you read it like that.

However, increased stress levels can cause our bodies to overproduce this hormone. When this happens, such as in burnout or long-term stress if you live in constant anxiety, for example, the body is much more susceptible to a number of unwanted side effects, including: high blood pressure, weight gain, poor sleep, elevated cholesterol, heart disease, anxiety and depression, damage to the immune system and cognitive problems such as learning difficulties and impaired memory. That said, it is important to keep our cortisol levels stable.


1. Engage in physical activity.

There seems to be a new study every other day linking exercise to health benefits. Either way, exercise and exercise can help reduce cortisol by 'releasing' pent-up stress or other counterproductive emotions.

One theory is that anxiety increases cortisol. By practising fortitude, resilience and increasing our self-confidence, we can effectively counteract potential anxiety. An additional benefit is that cortisol levels are lowered. Theories aside, exercise in any form is a great way to lower cortisol levels. But beware, if you are in burnout or nearing burnout, don't start exercising very heavily and pumping up your heart rate. This is actually rather dangerous and if you recognise these symptoms, stop high-impact cardio immediately! Rather go cycling or walking.


Any form of meditation or mindfulness will lower cortisol levels. Even a few deep breaths in the middle of a hectic working day can reduce your stress and anxiety levels, thereby lowering the stress hormone. A good, simple way to apply mindfulness: if you feel tense in any way, take 10-15 deep breaths, lower your shoulders and focus your attention on your breathing. You don't have to do anything else. Just notice if you feel the body relax. Doing something with your full attention, be it breathing or chewing, is already mindful. If you can do this, the effect is very beneficial in reducing an amount of negative effects, both mentally and physically. And this lowers cortisone levels.


Researchers at Johns Hopkins University discovered a link between social isolation and elevated cortisol levels in mice. It is believed that people with a predisposition to mental illness and those who are socially isolated when growing up are more at risk of developing abnormal behaviour later in life.

This study confirms what many scientists already knew: human bonding is important for physical and mental health at any age. Family ties, friendships and intimate relationships are all beneficial in lowering stress levels, thus reducing cortisol levels.

As we are forced into social isolation, extroverts in particular suffer from restlessness and stress. They can also become lethargic or depressed because they actually get energy from being with other people. Introverts suffer less from this.


"Laughter is healthy." How many times have we heard this throughout our lives? Dr William Fry, a behavioural psychiatrist who has been studying the effects of laughter for more than 30 years, argues that laughter is inextricably linked to a number of physical and mental benefits.

One such benefit of laughter is its positive effect on stress hormone levels. Studies show that sense of humour, laughter and levity are all beneficial in lowering cortisol and other stress hormones.

One of the commands people in my practice get when they suffer from stress is to do something you enjoy. Especially for people in burnout, this is often very difficult. Sometimes they don't even remember what they enjoyed doing. Their lives are often full of everything they "have to do" and with pleasing others. Doing things you enjoy also lowers the stress hormone.


Almost everyone knows that music can affect your mood, but using music to improve your mood is something we hardly do. Putting on your favourite music can instantly make you feel much better. There is a chemical reason for this: music increases the amount of endorphins ("feel good" hormones) and also reduces the amount of stress hormones in the brain. So, put on some nice music!


Do you have that too? That when you are more stressed and sleep badly, the craving for e.g. chocolate, biscuits or crisps actually increases? Logical. This too is a consequence of increased cortisol levels.

Certain foods such as eggs, fish, lean meat, flaxseed, citrus fruits, berries and leafy vegetables can help lower cortisol levels. Another way to reduce stress and lower cortisol is to include five small meals a day. This helps prevent hunger and reduces cravings for (fat- and carbohydrate-rich) foods that result from high cortisol levels.

Finally, implementing a high-fibre and high-protein diet will help reduce stress hormones. Rather reducing complex carbohydrates (ie sugar and starch) also helps to lower cortisol levels.


This one is relatively easy to explain. Not getting enough sleep (7 to 9 hours per night) causes a systematic negative response from the body.

It is therefore important to establish a sleep routine. Sleep experts recommend going to bed and waking up at the same time every day, including weekends. This is perhaps one of the hardest things to do. Especially if you cannot fall asleep and are therefore still tired in the morning It is also important to reserve the bedroom for sleep-related activities only. In other words, no tablets, mobile phones or laptops. But you probably already knew that :-)

So if you suffer from stress, don't go trying to lose weight. It won't work now anyway. The cortisol in your body will cause the fat to stay where it is. And your body will gain even more weight afterwards because it wants to save energy to avoid running out of energy source. So you're only going to get the yo-yo effect. Eat healthy, eat when you are hungry and stop when you have had enough. Exercise and do things you enjoy! For a body in stress mode, that's the best thing you can do.

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